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Schumer, Gillibrand enhance clout ; Expertise in crafting message, passing bills spurs unlikely ascents

Democratic power may be waning across the Capitol, but New York's two Democratic senators have never looked stronger.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who ranks third in the Senate leadership, recently picked up new responsibilities in crafting the Democratic majority's policy and message.

In other words, he's going national with the headline-grabbing, middle-class-first approach to politics that New Yorkers have come to know so well. Politico, a newspaper for D.C. political junkies, dubbed it "The Schumerization of the Senate."

Meanwhile, Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, derided not long ago as an accidental senator long on chatter but short on experience, won new respect late last year by pushing to passage two bills once thought to be dead.

Advocates credit her with helping rescue a measure to aid 9/1 1 first responders, as well as the repeal of the policy barring gays from serving openly in the military.

"Two years in the Senate, and she's just padded her resume with two historic pieces of legislation," said John Feal, whose FealGood Foundation pushed for years for the 9/1 1 health bill.

For both senators, it has been an unlikely turn of events.

After the re-election of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada last fall, it looked as if Schumer would be stuck with the same leadership role that he had in the departing Congress.

And it looked as if Gillibrand's fight for the 9/1 1 bill and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" repeal would fall prey to Republican opposition and limited time in the lame-duck session of Congress late last year.

Instead, the election, and the persistence of the two New York senators, changed everything.

After the Democrats lost six Senate seats, Reid quickly turned to Schumer to bolster the party's agenda and message.

"I think it reflects a belief that Harry Reid and other senators have that Schumer is uniquely able to fuse issues with a message that resonates," said Norman J. Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank here.

"He's done it for himself, he's done it for the [Democratic Senate] campaign committee," which Schumer headed between 2005 and 2008, Ornstein said, adding that Schumer "is obviously soaring in the respect his colleagues have for him."

That means his colleagues will soon be taking Schumer's signature approach: finding issues, both big and small, that resonate with average voters, and then tailoring and promoting a message based on them through news conferences, media calls and photo opportunities.

"I think my colleagues realize we made some mistakes last year, most of all not focusing like a laser on the middle class," Schumer said. "And my goal is to have us [focus] in policy, politics and message on the middle class. That's the job they've given me."

>'New York comes first'

It's very unusual for a Senate leader such as Reid to cede so much responsibility to a senator who ranks third in the pecking order, Ornstein said. As vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus, Schumer ranks behind not only Reid, but also Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.

Now, though, Schumer will also serve as chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee while overseeing Reid's communications shop. Several key members of Schumer's staff are making the move to the national staff.

"Reid is happy to give him a more prominent place in the leadership, and Schumer is happy to accept," said Thomas E. Mann, a congressional expert at the left-leaning Brookings Institution here.

Schumer stressed, though, that his new duties won't detract from the attention he pays to New York State. He still plans to visit all 62 counties each year and to be in the Buffalo area at least a dozen times, while focusing on issues aimed at boosting the state's economy.

"The bottom line is New York comes first and foremost for me," Schumer said. "It's in my bones."

Gillibrand, too, vowed to focus on the state, especially its economy, over the next two years.

But she does so with a strengthened hand and an enhanced reputation in the wake of her legislative successes during the lame-duck session.

None other than Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and no fan of most politicians, lavished praise on Gillibrand last week.

"You're doing a hell of a job," Stewart -- who previously devoted an entire show to pushing the 9/1 1 legislation -- told Gillibrand on his show last week.

That's a far cry from what was being said about Gillibrand shortly after then-Gov. David A. Paterson appointed her to succeed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who resigned to become secretary of state in January 2009.

Capitol Hill wags mockingly compared Gillibrand to Tracy Flick, the obnoxiously self-centered candidate for class president in the 1999 comedy "Election."

And an array of New York Democrats threatened to challenge her in a primary.

Since then, though, Schumer and the Obama White House worked to push those potential challengers out of the way. And a trait that won Gillibrand such criticism early on -- her persistent ambition -- won her astounding victories on the Senate floor.

>Relentless pressure

Feal, the 9/1 1 advocate, told Gillibrand after the health bill for first responders passed that she has "the tenacity of a leopard."

The bill, which provides federal medical aid to first responders sickened by the smoke and fumes rising up from the collapsed twin towers of the World Trade Center after the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, had been stalled for years.

Many senators of both parties made it a low priority, thinking that it was a local New York issue, Feal said.

But then Gillibrand -- saying she was inspired, in part, by the success that the Families of Continental Flight 3407 had in pressuring lawmakers for aviation safety legislation after the crash that killed 50 people in Clarence Center in February 2009 -- told Feal's group to ramp up its pressure in Congress.

Meanwhile, Gillibrand pressed for and won a Senate hearing on the issue, and teamed with her House colleagues from the New York delegation and with Schumer to lobby colleagues for their votes.

Schumer was instrumental in striking the final deal that changed the minds of some Republicans who were concerned about the bill's cost, Feal said. But Gillibrand's relentless pressure was key.

"She was knocking on every senator's door," Feal said.

Gillibrand pursued a similar strategy in pressing for the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the policy requiring gay and lesbian members of the armed forces to hide their sexual identity or be discharged from the service.

She said she became passionate about the issue after meeting a decorated soldier who told her that the policy "made him lie every day."

Finding that legislative efforts to repeal the policy had lagged, she began meeting with colleagues from both parties and lining up support for repeal.

And even though she is not on the Armed Services Committee, she pressed its chairman, Sen. Carl M. Levin, D-Mich., to hold a hearing on the policy. There, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that repealing the policy was "the right thing to do."

"When I heard that, my jaw dropped," Gillibrand said. "I was so excited. I thought: That testimony alone will get me the rest of my undecided votes."

>'A challenge for her'

It took time -- and a Pentagon report advocating the policy's repeal -- to line up those votes, but the Senate and the House voted for repeal in December.

Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, credited Gillibrand with pressuring Reid and Levin to make repeal a priority.

"Frankly, it was a challenge for her to play a huge role," given her lack of seniority and position on the Armed Services panel, said Sarvis, whose group works to prevent discrimination against gays in the military.

"But she grabbed onto this issue and never let it go till the final vote," Sarvis said.

That's a very different portrait of Gillibrand than that her critics painted soon after she joined the Senate, when her shifting positions on some issues and her rambling public appearances earned her mockery in the media.

Asked if she had grown in the Senate and if her critics had been wrong, Gillibrand said she worked in the Senate just as she had previously in the House, which can only lead to one conclusion.

"I think people were wrong," she said.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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